A reluctant combatant in the “Climate Wars” has learned to embrace the role
Anti-intellectualism isn’t a new phenomenon in America. But the current war of words over climate science has taken on the tone of a religious war. Comments on this very blog often testify to that. As some scientists have discovered, the war has escalated beyond words, to tactics that include espionage, intimidation, and even attempts at prosecution.
For several years, Michael Mann has been on the front lines of this conflict. Though he says he finds himself a combatant more by conscription than enlistment, the Penn State climatologist has made it the subject of his recent book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.
It was partly Mann’s work that created one of the first battle fronts in the climate wars, the now famous (or infamous, depending on which side you’re on) graph known as the “hockey stick,” which appears to document the impact of industrialization (read that: burning of fossil fuels) on global warming. The graph was featured in Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and was assailed by some as misleading.
Though the Hockey Stick was largely vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences and others, Mann had already become a target of climate contrarians when he surfaced again in the series of emails hijacked from a British university in 2009. The (CRU) email threads were used to again attack the mainstream of climate science, in an episode that some came to call “Climategate.” It was an unfortunate, if inevitable term, as it presumes some kind of wrongdoing and cover-up by scientists, where subsequent investigations have found none.
Recently I had a chance to sit down with Mann at a major science meeting. I wondered what Mann thought about the recent skirmish over climate scientist Peter Gleick’s admission that he had used deception to get insider documents from the Heartland Institute. Turns out he has sympathy for both.
Miller: Gleick says he succumbed to frustration over the corporate disinformation campaign to undermine climate science. What’s your reaction to that, and to Heartland’s campaign to bring down Gleick and the Pacific Institute since?
Mann: Peter is the first to admit he showed poor judgement here. And as someone who has had [my] own emails stolen and words twisted and misrepresent, I feel for the Heartland Institute folks—to a point. But I think we have to recognize that there isn’t quite a moral equivalency to what Gleick did and what the criminals who hacked the CRU emails did.
In the latter case, there was no impropriety revealed, just a cynical attempt to misrepresent and smear honest scientists, and it was used as part of a coordinated effort by vested interests to derail any progress in Copenhagen toward reaching a meaningful agreement to reduce global carbon emissions. In the former case, with Heartland, what was revealed…simply amplified what we had already known, that Heartland was part of an industry-funded effort to mislead the public about climate change. What was particularly revolting was the campaign afoot, revealed by the stolen documents — that is, the numerous documents whose authenticity Heartland has not denied — to mislead our children by inserting anti-scientific climate change denial propaganda into K-12 classrooms around the country. This is especially pernicious given that it is our children — and grandchildren — who will see the most damaging impacts of climate change if we do not choose to act now.
(Ed. Note: Heartland claims that at least one of the published documents was a forgery and has created an entire website to put forth its own version of events)
Miller: With all this “warfare” going on, how do you get any science done?
Mann: Well, it was difficult for me to explain to my colleagues in the department of meteorology at Penn State why there was police tape over the door to my office one day. And that was because the FBI had to come in and take away a sample from an envelope that I had received, a white powder in an envelope. They sent it away to a lab. Eventually the results came back. It was corn meal. It was an attempt to intimidate and scare me but it wasn’t a hazardous material.
And I’ve had, you know, nasty emails and letters and phone messages threatening me, thinly veiled threats against my family. If you name it, it’s pretty much happened to me and many climate scientists who now find themselves at the center of this, the attacks by powerful vested interests who are pretty comfortable with our current addiction to fossil fuels and don’t want to see change. And they’re fighting hard to try to make sure it doesn’t change.
Miller: I’ve heard many scientists lately lamenting what they perceive to be a general hostility toward science in America of late.
Mann: Yeah, it’s a very disturbing development. We sometimes talk about the politicization of science, but…I think what we’re really talking about is the scientization of politics. Something in some sense even worse. We’ve reached a point where science is just another way of waging politics, the abuse of science, the misrepresentation of science.
And to me, that’s very disturbing because we rely upon being informed about society-relevant science and technology to move forward. I mean, it’s what grew our economy. It’s what has allowed the U.S. to be [one] of the leading industrial nations. And for us to now have evolved to a point where there are many at the highest levels of our political system who take what can only be characterized as an anti-scientific view — the rejection of science, whether it be the science of climate change or evolution or, you know, stem cell research, what-have-you. I think that’s very troubling. I think it’s part of a larger sort of poisoning of our public discourse that we have seen in recent years.
Miller: Any regrets about your chosen career path at this point?
Mann: When I look back and ask myself, you know, where am I now, and where would I have been, I can’t imagine anything more important that I could be doing with my life than talking to the public about what, frankly, may be the greatest threat that civilization has ever faced: the challenge of dealing with human-caused climate change — and to be in a position where I can inform the public dialog about that problem. I was a reluctant entrant into the public debate over climate change. But over time, I’ve grown to embrace the opportunities that that’s given me to talk about this issue.
Here are links to two independent reviews of Mann’s book, a sympathetic one from the British newspaper, The Guardian, and a relatively unflattering one from The Wall Street Journal. The Guardian also published a series of “edited extracts” from the book.